Hoppin' Up and Down

Catching up with Eric Gaffney and vintage Sebadoh.

Listening to "Showtape '91," the nearly 12-minute compilation of self-deprecating concert intros that closes the bonus disc of demos, remixes, and outtakes that's part of the recently reissued/remastered/expanded version of Sebadoh'sIII, is good for a load of laughs. Revisiting the 23 tracks that appeared on the original 1991 album — a confusing-yet-compelling, famously lo-fi sprawl of ragged, sensitive grunge-folk (written mostly by Lou Barlow) and hardcore- and psych-rock-inspired noise jams (written mostly by Eric Gaffney) — is a reminder of both the Massachusetts trio's skewed vision and just how much it influenced an entire era of indie rock, even when the members were mocking that scene with their 1991 single "Gimme Indie Rock."

The reissue's accompanying booklet shows that though history seems to have anointed Barlow the king of Sebadoh, it's the all-but-forgotten Gaffney who actually founded the band, wrote the bulk of its early material, and brought Barlow into the fold after he'd gotten the boot from Dinosaur Jr.

"I started the band with Lou playing bass, me on guitar, and then we met Jason [Loewenstein]," the 38-year-old Gaffney writes via e-mail, his preferred method of communication. "There would be no Sebadoh if it weren't for me, period. But when Jason and Lou learned to relax and play their songs in addition to mine is when we fully became a group."

Although he's occasionally been portrayed as a mercurial kook who quit Sebadoh after 1993's Bubble & Scrape because of personal instability, Gaffney split because he was averse to the hype that began to swirl after III and because he was fed up with the power struggles, ego clashes, and money issues involved. In recent years, Gaffney, who lives in San Francisco, and Loewenstein have reconnected; Loewenstein played drums for Fields of Gaffney during a handful of shows in New York last year. And Gaffney hasn't ruled out a III-era Sebadoh reunion. "We might reform for some shows or a tour, but no news yet," he writes.

Until that happens, Gaffney's continuing with his own thing, playing shows that include plenty of songs from III as well as prior Sebadoh albums, in addition to his solo material (including new songs from a 27-track, as-yet-untitled album due this fall). "I have a bunch of records to think up, and would like to reach a wider audience and spend time in studios," Gaffney concludes. "I have at least 20 records to write and release before I'm gone." Michael Alan GoldbergTour Good, Chemo Bad

Kirk Rundstrom, 37-year-old songwriter, singer, and guitarist for the Wichita, Kansas, punk-grass band Split Lip Rayfield, has built a career on clever and graphic countryesque tunes about drinking, death, and devastation — and has a reputation for blasting through them with a joy as manic as his string-shredding strum. But to quote Merle Haggard, "Things aren't funny anymore." In January, Rundstrom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Despite four months of nonstop chemotherapy, the cancer spread to his aorta and lymph nodes. The doctors gave him two to six months. He called off the radiation and started making plans — not for a funeral but for another tour (though Florida's out of reach at this point).

Outtakes: I've been dreading this [interview] more than Terri Gross would dread a chat with Gene Simmons.

Kirk Rundstrom:Why?

I've never interviewed someone living under a death sentence.

I'm still alive. If you think about it, we're all living under a death sentence.

Do you have a history of cancer in your family?

I was adopted, so I don't really know. My mother died of cancer at 56 years of age. I saw what chemo did for her.

The disease hit you very hard and very fast.

I had symptoms before I was diagnosed. I was rotating in and out of tours. I'd just done 58 shows in a row. I thought it was because I was singing every night and the pain in my back was from the road. I was healthy. No drugs, no fast food, no alcohol.

Were you a smoker?

I used to do drugs, drink, and smoke. But for the last few years, I've been clean and sober. I know all that stuff had an effect. You are what you put into your body. I'm a firm believer of that.

What alternative therapies are you trying?

I get Vitamin C intravenously, acupuncture, very strict diet, no sugar. I am planning on living and not dying. For the majority of cancer patients, you get diagnosed, it's such a scary thing. The doctor says they're going to do chemo, which is a little bit of hope, and you jump at it. I think chemo is America's form of euthanasia, for the most part.

It can be brutal.

They can't find a cure for cancer. It's ridiculous. One woman with breast cancer can walk into a hospital and she gets chemo and it clears it. Another woman gets the same treatment and it spreads through her body. The doctors don't change the course. They give her the same chemo. I don't know if that's because drug companies took doctors out on a Caribbean cruise and said, "This is the drug we're pushing this year." But if something doesn't work, you have to try something different.

Do you feel strong enough to tour?

I haven't left home since January. I'm a human pincushion. Every day I am off the chemo, the more I get the drugs out of my body, the better I feel. I'm just now getting the strength to form the chords. But if for some reason I only have a little time left, I don't want to spend it in a bed. Roy KastenDi Great Insohreckshan

Unlike come-lately scribes like Jewel and Billy Corgan, Jamaican-born, U.K.-based "dub poet" Linton Kwesi Johnson had released books of his work years before he recorded a single verse. Still, most know LKJ for his albums of spoken-word portraits of English immigrant culture and race relations set to languid, reverb-drenched roots reggae. And even as you sit back with Mi Revalueshanary Fren, a recently published, decades-spanning collection, you can almost hear the bass lines thrumming beneath the print. Though he's a university-trained sociologist, Johnson writes almost exclusively in Creole patois, the melodic vernacular of the Caribbean working class. More than most writers — excepting jazz-influenced poets like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka — Johnson uses text as musical notation; in their rounded abbreviations and nearly inscrutable slang, his lines beg to be savored aloud. "Shock-black bubble-doun-beat bouncing/rock-wise tumble-doun sound music," he writes in "Reggae Sounds," his literal lyricism bounding off the page and onto the tongue.

But Mi Revalueshanary Fren is far from a sun-dappled reverie of easy skanking and mellow moods. Johnson's raw, vivid, street-level reporting of gang violence, police brutality, and racial conflict hews much closer to activist anthems like "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Burning and Looting" than a kinky reggae party. There are several layers of interpretation to dig into here, from the academic to the linguistic to the cultural, from the insightful introduction by American poet Russell Banks to the decryption of Johnson's Creole and, ultimately, to the understanding of its meaning. But what most powerfully engages is the consistent urgency of Johnson's words, cramped into ganja-fumed basement parties and meeting halls, echoing through sound systems and street fights, emerging sober and scarred but hopeful. These grainy, darkly lit snapshots are taken in the true colors of the moment, making LKJ one of the preeminent documentarians of the African diaspora. Jonathan Zwickel

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